Virus Season Is Here

November 2003

I want you to know I did my homework for this column: I contracted a virus. No, not a computer virus. The other kind--that little bit of free-floating DNA that invades your cells, takes over the machinery, and replicates itself. (I wanted my reporting to be authentic.)

A computer virus is similar: a renegade bit of computer code that invades computers and typically replicates itself by sending itself to every person in your e-mail address book. The difference, of course, is that the latter kind is the product of malicious intent.

Many of you dear readers now have first-hand knowledge of viruses of the computer kind, thanks to the most virulent outbreak ever that occurred in September. The culprit was "W32/Swen.A". The unlucky victims, which was just about everyone, received a very official-looking e-mail message that purported to be from Microsoft about a security patch. Attached was an executable file. Clicking on that brought disaster.

Which brings us to lesson #1. NEVER click on an attached file unless you personally know the sender and are expecting the file.

Good old "W32/Swen.A" spread like wildfire. I must have received it well over a hundred times. I'm still receiving it today. It not only sent itself to everyone in the address book but also scanned the hard drive for e-mail addresses. It also attempted to turn off any security measures on the infected system.

Microsoft hastened to remind users that while it does indeed send out security messages on occasion, it would never send out an attached file. You might want to check this helpful page on Microsoft's site that explains how you can tell if a Microsoft security-related message is genuine.

Also available on Microsoft's site is a helpful page on security and privacy that includes a guide on how you can make sure your PC is protected.

Lesson #2 is that you must protect yourself. It's not enough to be careful about opening attachments. You really need to have some sort of virus protection software on your computer and to update it regularly.

For one thing, not all viruses arrive via e-mail. The recent "Blaster" virus that spread around the Internet in August did so by accessing computers directly via the network. Actually, properly speaking this wasn't a virus but a worm, which, unlike a virus doesn't infect other programs, but simply sends copies of itself to other computers on a network, such as the Internet.

Two of the more widely used commercial antivirus programs are made available by McAfee and Symantec. There are also some freeware solutions. A version of AVG antivirus software is free for personal use and has gotten some good reviews. Avast is also free for home users for noncommercial use.

To get an overview of virus software, a good place to start is our old friend About. The Antivirus Software section gives information about the latest outbreaks, has links to free and commercial antivirus products for a variety of platforms, and even includes information about virus hoaxes and myths. Also, a good site for tracking the latest infestations is the Internet security center operated by Carnegie Mellon University.

Unfortunately, viruses and worms aren't the only thing you need to worry about. If you have a direct connection to the Internet such as DSL or cable modem, you need to also be concerned about people breaking into your computer. The solution is a firewall.

Again you can find a good introduction to firewall security on About. And again there are links to freeware and commercial products.

So what antivirus software do I use? Ah, well, um . . .

Your computer geek uses no antivirus software. I actually have Norton Antivirus installed but haven't kept it up to date since my annual subscription expired and I had trouble with the company's web site when I was trying to renew it.

I've got to get that taken care of. Meanwhile, my e-mail provider (Lisco) uses Postini, which is quite effective in blocking e-mail borne viruses. And my University has solid firewall protection for the campus network.

In addition, I use a Macintosh. The latest version of the Mac operating system is fairly immune to viruses, in part because it's based on the Unix operating system, which is more secure.

Unlike Windows Mac OS X comes with its ports shut and locked; it asks for a password if a program tries to install itself; it has a core OS that not even an administrator can alter; etc., etc.

Now if my body were so immune . . . . Achoo!

© 2003 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

E-mail Jim Karpen